Ship Identity Theft


People aren’t the only ones affected by identity theft.


Tankers, cargo freighters and other ships sailing in the Central Pacific and off the coast of West Africa are increasingly pretending to be vessels that they’re not, according to a startup.

In July, almost 700 ships worldwide engaged in identity fraud, which has grown 30 percent in the past two years, according to new research from Windward, which monitors the worldwide system for tracking merchant vessels and uses data-analytics to detect illegal activities.

To hide their crimes on the high-seas, these ships broadcast false identities by using transmitters taken from scrapped vessels on the black market and by typing in made-up ID numbers and hoping they don’t arouse suspicion, said co-founder and CEO Ami Daniel. Some are very large vessels — oil tankers and cargo ships carrying millions of dollars worth of goods and raw materials to market.

About 43 percent of identity fraud occurred in Central Pacific region. Another big area of attention is West Africa, where tankers are hiding oil shipments, Daniel said. Fifteen percent of all ships transmitting fake identities are tankers, typically carrying oil or oil products, he said. Windward’s customers include intelligence agencies and oil and gas companies that need real-time alerts about threats to their territories or critical infrastructure.

Manipulation of the global Automatic Identification System (AIS) transmitters, which all passenger ships and large international vessels are required to use, can take absurd forms. As the map below shows, one Chinese fishing vessel was sending false GPS coordinates to obscure its true location. The dead giveaway? The coordinates showed the ship traveling across central Asia on dry land. The lack of authentication mechanisms make identity and GPS fraud of this sort possible, according to Windward.

Ships can also turn off their transponder to try to hide their actions. In the Gulf of Mexico, a tanker holding Kurdish oil, which is the subject of a dispute with Iraq that has prevented the ship from entering U.S. ports, vanished from radar and re-appeared three days later in roughly the same location, possibly the result of its transponder being turned off.

The risks posed by ships that try to disguise who or where they are range widely. Governments can be duped into thinking vessels entering their territories are benign when in fact they are carrying weapons. Ships engaged in illegal fishing or polluting can go unnoticed and unpunished. Vessels smuggling oil shipments or other raw materials can lead to significant gaps in intelligence on supply and demand.

Source: Bloomberg / Oct. 29, 2014


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